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The “Consensus” Settlements

By Mitchell Bard

Prior to the introduction of the Trump peace plan, the expectation was that negotiations over the final status of the West Bank would determine which settlements should be incorporated into Israel and which must be evacuated. In August 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon acknowledged that “not all the settlements that are today in Judea and Samaria will remain.” The Trump plan, however, envisioned Israel applying sovereignty to all the settlements and did not require any to be removed. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said following his reelection in 2020 that he would apply Israeli sovereignty to all the settlements. The plan was suspended, however, as a condition of signing the Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain.

In Gaza, Israel’s intent was always to withdraw completely, and no settlements were viewed as vital to Israel for economic, security, or demographic reasons. The situation in the West Bank is completely different. The disengagement from Gaza involved only 21 settlements and approximately 8,000 Jews; 129 settlements with a population of 475,481 (2021 est.) are located in Judea and Samaria

The Trump plan was rejected by the Palestinians and never got off the ground. The expectation is that President Biden will scrap it and pursue a two-state solution based on previous initiatives that called for Israel to evacuate some of the communities as part of a negotiated peace agreement. 

Any new evacuation from the West Bank will involve another gut-wrenching decision that most settlers and their supporters will oppose with even greater ferocity than the Gaza disengagement. Moreover, in light of the violent response of Hamas following Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, most Israelis do not favor further territorial concessions to the Palestinians without evidence of a change in their willingness to coexist beside Israel and security guarantees to ensure a Palestinian state does not turn into “Hamastan.” In the past, most Israelis were prepared to withdraw from small and isolated communities. About one-quarter of the settlements have fewer than 500 residents.

Roughly 71% of the Jews in the West Bank live in five* settlement “blocs,” four of which are near the 1949 Armistice Line  (inaccurately referred to often as the 1967 border). Most Israelis believe these blocs should become part of Israel when final borders are drawn and both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly said the large settlement blocs will “remain in our hands.” The table below lists the “consensus” settlements:

Bloc

No. of Communities

Population

Area (sq. miles)

Ma’ale Adumim

4

49,725

28

Modiin Illit

4

87,866

2

Ariel

11

63,853

47

Gush Etzion

13

36,086

10

Givat Ze’ev

5

35,195

3

Betar Illit* 1 64,618 2

Total

38

337,342

92

As the table shows, these are large communities with thousands of residents. Evacuating them would be the equivalent of dismantling major American cities the size of Maryland’s capital, Annapolis, Juneau, Alaska, or Augusta, Georgia. On a proportional basis, compared to the total population of the country, these blocs would be the equivalent of U.S. municipalities with populations ranging from a half million (e.g., Boston, Denver, Seattle, Washington, D.C.) to 1.7 million (e.g., Philadelphia and Houston).

Ma’ale Adumim is a suburb of Israel’s capital, barely three miles outside Jerusalem’s city limits, a ten-minute drive away. Ma’ale Adumim is not a recently constructed outpost on a hilltop; it is a 46-year-old community that is popular because it is clean, safe, and close to where many residents work. It is also one of the largest Jewish cities in the territories, with a population of 40,943. Approximately 9,000 people live in surrounding settlements that are included in the Ma’ale bloc. Israel has long planned to fill in the empty gap between Jerusalem and this bedroom community (referred to as the E1 project). The corridor is approximately 3,250 acres and does not have any inhabitants, so no Palestinians would be displaced. According to the Clinton plan, Ma’ale Adumim was to be part of Israel.

The Gush Etzion Bloc consists of 13 communities with a population of 36,806 just 10 minutes from Jerusalem. Jews lived in this area prior to 1948, but the Jordanian Legion destroyed the settlements and killed 240 women and children during Israel’s War of Independence. After Israel recaptured the area in 1967, descendants of those early settlers reestablished the community.

*The second largest of the settlements, roughly six miles from Jerusalem, is the city of Betar Illit with 64,617 residents. It is sometimes considered part of the Gush Etzion Bloc but is shown separately in the table above. Its size alone ensures it will remain part of Israel.

The Givat Ze’ev bloc includes five communities (Bet Horon, Givat Ze’ev, Givon Hahadasha, Kochav Yaakov and Psagot) just northwest of Jerusalem. Givat Ze’ev, with a population of 20,627, is by far the largest.

Modiin Illit is a bloc with four communities. Modiin Illit, situated just over the Green Line, about 23 miles northwest of Jerusalem and the same distance east of Tel Aviv, is now the largest city in the disputed territories with a population of 80,282.

Ariel is now the heart of the second most populous bloc of settlements. The city is located just 25 miles east of Tel Aviv and 31 miles north of Jerusalem. Ariel and the surrounding communities expand Israel's narrow waist (which was just 9 miles wide prior to 1967) and ensure that Israel has a land route to the Jordan Valley in case Israel needs to fight a land war to the east. It is more controversial than the other consensus settlements because it is the furthest from the 1949 Armistice Line, extending approximately 12 miles into the West Bank. Nevertheless, Ehud Barak’s proposal at Camp David in 2000 included Ariel among the settlement blocs to be annexed to Israel; the Clinton plan also envisioned incorporating Ariel within the new borders of Israel.


Click to enlarge

In 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said Israel would keep the settlement blocs of Ma’ale Adumim, Givat Ze’ev, and Gush Etzion. Prior to the 2000 Camp David Summit, even Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians could accept Israel holding onto Ma’ale Adumim and Givat Zeev. Most peace plans, including Clinton’s, assumed that Israel would annex sufficient territory to incorporate 75-80% of the Jews currently living in the West Bank. At Camp David, Israel insisted that 80% of the Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria would be in settlement blocs under Israeli sovereignty. President Clinton agreed and proposed that Israel annex 4-6 percent of the West Bank for three settlement blocs to accomplish this demographic objective and swap some territory within Israel in exchange.

Using the figures in the table above, however, Israel would fall short of that demographic goal even if these blocs were annexed. The total population of these communities is 337,342, which is roughly 71% of the more than 475,000 Jews living in Judea and Samaria. An agreement to dismantle the settlements outside the blocs would require the removal of nearly 140,000 people. The expectation during the Camp David talks was that roughly one-third of the Jews living in other settlements would agree to move into these blocs or other parts of Israel. This assumption has never been tested and that number could be larger or smaller. If it is accurate, the percentage in the blocs would reach 80%, but still require Israel to evacuate more than 90,000 people.

Recognizing the demographics of the area, President Bush acknowledged the inevitability of some Israeli towns in the West Bank being annexed to Israel in his 2004 letter to Prime Minister Sharon. In his meeting a year later with Palestinian Authority President Abbas, however, he seemed to hedge his support by saying that any such decision would have to be mutually agreed to by Israelis and Palestinians. Nevertheless, the future border is likely to approximate the route of the security fence, given the Israeli prerequisite (with U.S. approval) of incorporating most settlers within Israel.

The Trump peace plan dramatically shifted the debate, at least in the short run, by calling for the creation of a Palestinian state in 70% of the West Bank and allowing Israel to annex all of the settlements. The Palestinians immediately rejected the plan, but it may become a new baseline for future negotiations.

Would the incorporation of settlement blocs prevent the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state? A look at a map shows that it would not. The total area of these communities is only 4% of the West Bank. A kidney-shaped state linked to the Gaza Strip by a secure passage would be contiguous. Some argue that the E1 project linking Ma’ale Adumim to Jerusalem would cutoff east Jerusalem, but even that is not necessarily true as Israel has proposed constructing a four-lane underpass to guarantee free passage between the West Bank and the Arab sections of Jerusalem. This assumes, however, that Israel would be prepared to dismantle most or all of the other 90 settlements. 

Some Israelis call for the government to annex all the disputed territories to create “Greater Israel.” The problem is that this could make Jews a minority in their own state, which opponents say would force Israel to deny the Palestinians the right to vote and thereby cease to be a democracy, or remain a democracy but cease to be a Jewish state. Proponents of Greater Israel have argued this so-called demographic dilemma is based on faulty data and that the combination of an increasing Jewish birthrate and immigration will guarantee a Jewish majority.

Arnon Soffer, head of the geography department at the University of Haifa, and considered Israel’s leading demographer has disputed the optimistic projections though his own have underestimated Jewish population growth and overestimated that of the Palestinians. Nevertheless, for the immediate future, the demographic dilemma is clear. If you add Israel’s current population of 9,291,000 (6,870,000 Jews) with the disputed territories (4.9 million) you get an entity with nearly 14.2 million people, and the percentage of Jews would fall under 50%. Some argue that Israel should not annex Gaza – what would happen to it is unclear – in which case the Jewish population would increase to 56% of the population but the Palestinians would still make up a significant minority (44% – up from 21% today) and pose the same political challenges.

Ultimately, Israel may decide to unilaterally disengage from the West Bank and determine which settlements it will incorporate within the borders it delineates. Israel would prefer, however, to negotiate a peace treaty with the Palestinians that would specify which Jewish communities will remain intact within the mutually agreed border of Israel, and which will need to be evacuated. Israel will undoubtedly insist that some or all of the “consensus” blocs become part of Israel.

The changing demographic picture in the West Bank makes the prospect of a two-state solution based on anything like the plans promoted by Clinton or Obama highly unlikely. It is hard to imagine any Israeli government that would be willing to force 90-140,000 Jews from their homes and this doesn’t include another 325,000 in Jerusalem who the Palestinians have said must leave (they have said no Jews would be allowed to live in a Palestinian state). The stituation will only become more complicated as the number of settlers continues to grow in the absence of any agreement. 


Source: Yaakov Katz, “West Bank Jewish Population Stats,” Updated to January 2, 2021;
Larry Derfner, “Sounding the Alarm About Israel’s Demographic Crisis,” Forward, (January 9, 2004);
Greg Myre, “Sharon Sees More West Bank Pullouts,” New York Times, (August 29, 2005);
Noah Browning, “Abbas wants 'not a single Israeli' in future Palestinian state,” Reuters, (July 29, 2013)
“As peace plan rolls out, Netanyahu says he will annex Jordan Valley, settlements,” Times of Israel, (January 28, 2020).